Design engineer Gabriel Elias has recently returned to his native Florida after spending the past six years employed at Mercedes F1, where he helped to design the cars that have carried the team to the past seven Formula 1 constructors’ championships.
Like most kids who were into racing, I started out wanting to be a driver. That was a non-starter because my family didn’t really have any money, so my father said, ‘You should go be an engineer.’
I had been going to Homestead-Miami Speedway with my father, who was the track photographer, from the day it opened in late ’95. There used to be IndyCar Spring Training every February, and my dad suggested that I write to Roger Penske and say that I wanted to be his engineer someday. I was eight or nine years old, but I typed up a letter, and a few months later I got a reply on Penske Racing letterhead saying, ‘If you study math and science, and then study engineering in university, someday you could be one of our engineers – good luck!’ It was having Mr. Penske write back to me that really sparked that engineering focus.
So from there, I started messing about with RC cars and graduated into wrenching on my first car at 16. I went to the University of Miami to study engineering, and everything I did was automotive-focused. I was swapping my engine in the dorm parking lot, doing random things like that. I always had a wrench in my hand. I was trying to keep very practical sense of what a car was, but also learning the engineering underpinnings.
I graduated in 2010, at the mid-to-tail end of the financial crisis. I was applying for jobs with racing teams unsuccessfully, but I also knew Honda had a really stout tradition of motorsport in both F1 and in IndyCar, so I applied to Honda R&D, and got hired as an engine design engineer.
I stayed at Honda for two-and-a-half years, and learned a phenomenal amount: how to do 3D CAD using Catia, 2D drawings, assembly drawings, geometric dimension and tolerancing… those are the underpinnings for designing anything. Honda also really taught me about things like servicing – installation and disassembly of vehicles; the process of understanding what goes into designing for service of a vehicle. You’re going to take apart an engine; how are you going to put it together? The guy has to hold a wrench in here. Can you fit a wrench there? Those kinds of questions.
At the same time, I had this idea that I could transition from passenger cars to Honda’s motorsport arm, because I’d met a couple of engineers who did the same thing. But I began to sense that that would take longer than I wanted it to, so I had to make a new plan. That was when I read an article on the Red Bull Racing website about a Canadian engineer named Gavin Ward, who was working in F1 at the time. He’s now Josef Newgarden’s engineer at Penske. He was an inspiration for me and became a mentor, and is now really a good friend of mine. In the article he mentioned going to Oxford Brookes University in the UK and doing the Masters in Motorsport Engineering program, so that sparked my next move.
I sold everything I owned, resigned from Honda, enrolled in Oxford Brookes to do my Masters, and moved to England. And while I was there, I took this approach that while everyone else was focused on Formula Student, I spent every waking moment that I wasn’t working on my dissertation looking for jobs, or messaging people on LinkedIn. Mercedes posted a grad scheme job that was a really unusual opening in that they wanted someone who had dealt with future car concepts, scheming, early layouts of vehicles, stuff like that. And I thought, ‘Not only is this really interesting to me, I actually have some experience with this at Honda. I know how to approach this.’
I ended up getting invited for an interview. But the one thing that I tried to make very apparent to the team was the visa issue, because I had already been rejected by Mercedes HPP for a job that I thought I was perfect for, which was a graduate engine designer. They’d rejected me because they didn’t want to sponsor my visa. I was devastated by that, so I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. I gave Mercedes a pamphlet with all of the information explaining the process to sponsor me, and asked for an interview. And they agreed.
It was nerve-wracking, because that opening was my one shot – I had maybe one or two months left in England on my student visa. I was a nervous wreck. I spent two weeks preparing for it. And to this day, that the hardest interview I’ve ever done in my life, by far. I’ve interviewed at Ferrari; I’ve interviewed at most of the teams on the grid, but that was by far the most difficult. After going through it and then working there for a couple of years, though, you could start to see why the pecking order on the grid is the way it is. The effort that Mercedes put into things making sure it hired the right candidates, even for a graduate-level job, really does show up on the track. But in the moment, I was thrown by it, for sure.
I was very fortunate during my time at Mercedes: I had a career that most F1 engineers don’t get to, in that I switched positions three times and had the chance to touch lots of different parts of the car. The 2017 car holds a special place for me, because I was able to be a part of it all the way through the process from inception to reality, which is very rare. I designed the sidepod radiators on that one, but due to changes with my role, I’d previously worked on the car’s concept design – really early, basically block figures of a vehicle. And I went from that into doing the detailed design of parts I’d previously been doing the early schemes on. Then I went all the way through the manufacturing, the testing, the validation, and all of that. So for that reason, the 2017 car was the coolest car I worked on.